Last night I attended the ‘African connections: moving people – perspectives on Bristol, slavery and migration’ seminar at the Malcolm X Centre, part of the Being Human 15 festival. The panel were brilliant, and the audience engaged.
I was struck at how solid, useful and forthright the conversation was, and particularly on the question of reparations. A question I’ve talked to white friends about several times, friends who have similar if not mirrored politics to mine, and often disagreed on. Last night the idea was crystallised for me thanks to the intelligent and cohesive offerings of everyone in the room.
The crux was this: yes we need reparations – of course we need reparations. We need to repair damage that has been done, always. We need to constantly be looking to better and strengthen our society in all ways, especially for those who bear the extra (and continuing) weights of an inequitable and brutal history.
This does not mean that we give cash handouts to individuals or families or neighbourhoods or demographics – who would we give them to? How much? Where would that money come from? Who is paying whom?
What this does mean is that we acknowledge the truth of our history, and the truths of our present. We employ that truth loudly, openly and together, to build, connect, and repair in real terms.
A full and honest education – not a black history month, but a syllabus that (shock horror) teaches all history because it’s history. New types of investment that recognise the fissured and transitory nature of existing ‘community’ investment, the removal of bottlenecking towards a particular kind of culture and commerce, and a release of the treatment of lower-economic communities as afterthoughts.
The willingness of each of us individually, of all histories and parentages, to integrate, share, listen to and work with each other – but also as a wider society to publicly express regret. Not because we are individually guilty, but because slavery was a regretful, shameful, vicious practice. And the trauma and reality and consequences of it remain today. Do we not agree?
One of the audience members suggested that a plaque be installed on the statue of Colston in the city centre, acknowledging his profession as a slaver (indeed, someone scrawled the fact on the base of the statue in 1998), or honouring the slaves who actually produced the wealth Colston distributed, or kept, as he saw fit. This is not the first time this has been suggested of course, and many people, myself included, would go further to say why not replace the thing with another statue, feature or something other.
Who are we as a city – what do we want to hide, and what do we want to celebrate?
Carl Miller of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media asserts that “para-political activity is a potent and growing phenomenon”, and if you’ve ever even glanced at social media, you’ll agree. But, note the use of the prefix para-, and his following assertion: “as politics in front of our eyes seems to be business as usual, an earthquake is rumbling under Westminster.” Is it really the case that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are galvanising and facilitating a post-postmodern world of political organisation? Will it, or has it already, changed the lives of those who use it to the extent that our future leaders might come to organize and communicate in ways that can’t be racketeered? And in a week in which reports of the Gaza conflict saturate the online mediascape, can it be the case that social media is important and effective enough to in fact make an impact on conflicts like these?
The term ‘social media’ (SM) is often a truncation to describe the now omni-accompanying digital platforms via which we chat blithely to tenuous contacts and acquaintances. The phrase is synonymous specifically with Facebook and Twitter, the profile-based platforms from which the majority of SM users broadcast and receive information, and are largely a deluge of faces, frivolity and thrillingly small animals. SM’s much broader network of tools can be underestimated; the term encompasses a vast amount of ‘Web 2.0’, the modern internet in which user-generated content dominates the landscape and the culture of cyberspace’s constant conveyor belt. YouTube, Instagram and Flickr are all social media tools too, as is Wikipedia, and all online blogs. The collective, collaborative potential of this revolution in communications is well utilized in certain arenas, and taken for granted in others, and the focus on SM as simply an individual’s digital ego-hub is often the source of its dismissal. But there are huge implications in its wider applications of creating, obtaining and transmitting events, visual media and discrete information freely and instantaneously. History need not be entirely written by the winners if the underdogs know their tech.
With all this potential, is there concrete value in social media as transformative platforms? Is it easy, or even helpful, to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of it (or, in terms of political engagement and activism, ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’)? Can uploading a photo of your dinner for the umpteenth time ever affect change? What if it’s another inadequate meal supplied by food banks because your parents are out of work, below a link to an article about the rise of the UK’s reliance on them? There are different ways to use SM valuably and effectively, to distribute information, to influence, to make visible, to facilitate understanding. And it seems that social media has the potential to do for awareness of current political crises what television reportage did for awareness of the Vietnam war; then again, the US waged destruction for years in spite of widespread dissent.
Jane Gaines debated a similar question with regard to documentary film in her essay ‘Political mimesis’ – what is it about political and social documentary film that moves people, and when it does, does it actually galvanise them into action? Does exposure to political argument via visual media encourage praxis? Gaines argues that alongside an emotional reaction, the visual representation of violence, struggle and conflict instigates (as all cinema does) a physical, visceral reaction similar to that of pornography; but to arouse the mind, arms, spirit, rather than genitalia. This stimulation can be felt even in the most terrible Hollywood war epics, but when the emphasis is on ‘real’ events, and ones that are occurring now, this bodily response might incite us to act upon what we now ‘know’ as a result of documentary ‘evidence’. This week, videos from Gaza, news reports and opinion pieces have gone viral across SM – not only do they move us emotionally, but hopefully, then, to act.
However, in his column for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell famously trashed SM ‘activism’, explaining that the ‘act’ largely ends at the click of a button: “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. […] There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. […] But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Gladwell points out that SM is a participatory, not motivational, tool that lessens the level of motivation that participation requires – by sharing that video of the boy with his face blown off, you’ve done what you can. You’ve distributed the information, perhaps contributed to others’ awareness; what else can you do?
How can we determine the value of this kind of activity? On one hand, how exactly can you help victims of atrocity other than by making people aware of their fate? Perhaps you share a few more videos, a few more articles. On the other, it’s clear that the definition of ‘help’ here is barely workable; what the children of Gaza needed was real political change years ago. How cynical can we be about our ability to affect the world? Does anyone know which acts will actually change a situation? Clicking the ‘Like’ button? Retweeting? What is it good for – absolutely nothing?
On the other side of the fence is Clay Shirky, who believes that “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.” While it is true that masses of apathetic, alienated, square-eyed youth in the UK spend vast amounts of time interacting predominantly digitally, their interaction with internet culture and SM can be optimal for an introduction to political awareness, even if not political action, if used with intent. Internet culture, especially ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ culture, has a strong interest in social justice, and this interest is reflected in SM content and even popular internet culture far more than it is in mainstream popular media. Internet culture is certainly influenced by mainstream culture, but can also act in opposition to it; in order to gain the most out of the power of the horizontally-organised counter cultural cyberspace, you have to want to immerse yourself in learning and acting on your knowledge. The crux of the problem being, therefore, that the majority of our culture and national curriculum distinctly lacks political analysis or awareness in the first place. And it’s not only young people who lack the drive.
It’s an ongoing struggle to encourage people to engage, but more and more communities exist online that encourage us to learn, and act. John and Hank Green, using their hit YouTube channel Vlogbrothers and numerous other SM, have created an online culture with a network of users and fans named ‘nerdfighteria’. [Said fans and users (‘nerdfighters’) are self-proclaimed nerds who fight the perennial scourge of worldsuck to increase awesome.] The Project for Awesome (P4A) is a yearly fundraising drive that the Vlogbrothers run via YouTube, encouraging users to upload videos in support of charities, thereby increasing awareness and encouraging their audiences to donate. For 2013’s P4A they also utilised crowdfunding site Indiegogo, raising $721,696, breaking Indiegogo’s record for the most money raised by a campaign. Together with the YouTube efforts the total raised in 2013 was $869,591.
Popular comic creators who make the most of their hits through social media such as Cracked and CollegeHumor have also used their presence to bring political issues to their audiences. Increasingly, these mainstream humour sites are distributing videos via SM that discuss issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, and net neutrality, for example. While this makes political tension accessible to people who might otherwise choose not to engage, what comes of the access to these videos? Could we justify creating content about the situation in Gaza for a mainstream comedy audience? CollegeHumor’s YouTube channel has 7.5 million subscribers; Reuters, BBC News and Associated Press have less than 1 million combined, reflecting both a creator and audience focus on lighter topics that can be made funny rather than the most urgent of political crises. This disparity here between passively encountering politics in one’s entertainment media, and engaging with active political organizations who are actingIRL illustrates Gladwell’s point nicely.
As far as the dynamic between SM and the mainstream media (MSM) goes, many have hastily hailed SM’s horizontal power structure as a cure-all alternative, while ignoring the complexities of the ever-intensifying relationship between them. Rather than expressing any distaste or worry about SM as a defiance, Martin Niesenholtz of TheNew York Times notes that SM is “highly complementary to what [they] do”. While SM has the ability to inform where the MSM won’t (rather than can’t), the MSM is also absorbing and incorporating it, and fast. Corporate news isn’t going anywhere quite yet, and until SM provides a direct challenge to it by making itself better organised, it will remain complementary. For example, both CNN and Al Jazeera have established networks of volunteers on the ground in crisis situations to provide news content to them via SM, which is then verified by journalists back at HQ; indeed, Al Jazeera’s network was set up as a direct response to the 08-09 conflict in Gaza. While SM can provide a fighting alternative to the blackouts and corruption we see too frequently from MSM houses, its loose networks suffer from a lack of direction, organisation and verification that provide their own problems. The MSM is quickly learning to pick up that slack while reaping the benefits of horizontally organised groundwork.
Former BBC ‘future media’ executive Nic Newman posited that while Twitter has a significantly smaller audience than Facebook, its users are the real “influencers. […] The audience isn’t on Twitter, but the news is on Twitter.” Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York noted that political conversations and debates are going on already, and journalists need to realize they are simply a part of this wider discourse, and should focus largely on providing context, debunking, and analysis. Channel 4 News seems to have cottoned on to this with regard to Gaza, creating a web video of significant critique from head reporter Jon Snow. In only a week the video has received around 900,000 views, several times that of any other of Channel 4’s videos that have been live far longer. In 5 minutes, Snow details his direct experience, providing visual evidence, critical context and concise analysis of the situation in Gaza, with a focus on the issue of most urgency: the fatal damage to its children. The length, content and style of the video makes it optimal for informing SM grazers about the situation, and is of course shareable across all SM platforms from YouTube. This is a particularly effective and efficient example of the way this collaboration can be used to influence people, engage them with politics, and pass that influence and engagement on. People want to engage, and when the opportunity appears amongst our shiny distractions, most will take that first step.
Two other videos concerning Gaza that have stood out for me this week are user-generated, and quite different. One, so vile, spurred me to act. I did not watch it, I saw only the thumbnail image. It shows a boy whose entire jaw is missing, ripped away by a bomb, and entering a hospital – to have what done to repair him, I can’t imagine. Stunned, I could not look away. I dipped my eyes to the comments below. The first one simply read
“guy comes in with no bottom jaw. Doctor spends 40 seconds making sure that he films him.. Riiiiiiiight.”
Disturbed by both the image and the blasé, cynical response, I felt sick, powerless; but determined to respond. The following comments were all of shock and disgust, and one admonished the sharer for posting it in the first place. Some questioned its authenticity; all legitimate concerns. How many other people were moved to act, share, write, boycott Israeli goods, pen a letter to the government…I do not know, and I suspect very few. I wish it had never happened; in lieu of that, I will engage with it.
The other video was of the previous day’s protests in Brighton and made by a filmmaking colleague, Lee Salter; a short observational reportage-style video in which members of the march were interviewed and the subject analysed. They spoke of boycotting Israel-trading outlets, of why they choose to march, of their frustration at the snails pace of change. The video is titled ‘Gaza to Brighton – things that we can do for Gaza’; one that encourages engagement and sharing, to consider actions such as marching and boycotting, to make noise and demand change, and make visible the people who are enacting this resistance already and how we might join them. It might not feel like much, but it’s often all people feel they can do, disenfranchised and confused as they are.
Gladwell makes a damning but noteworthy assertion about the power structures of internet networks, social and political. “Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” Collective organizations can be successful when they have solid aims. If unions got distracted by putting cats in mugs and making gifs of them, would we be surprised when the strikes never happened? The Internet does not have solid aims, because it represents a vast number of people on the globe, a huge number of the whom are are ill-informed, unhappy, bored and understandably disillusioned. To ensure the productive and effective use of SM by the user, the audience, the masses, we need to understand what it is good for, and what it’s limitations are. Clay Shirky, in part, finds agreement with Gladwell here: “social media tools are not a replacement for real-world action but a way to coordinate it.”
The dissemination of information and ideas is only the first step for political engagement. For the majority of SM users, especially the slacktivists who think they’re affecting change by clicking a button, it’s the last. Direct activism and action can be suggested, encouraged and introduced by SM, but nothing will replace work done and demands made on the ground. Unfortunately, radical action (and even democratic action) are silently discouraged by the structure of our lifestyles, our 9 to 5 hours that could be better distributed, our entertainment-saturated landscape, our addictions encouraged by advertising, and illiteracy concerning power. Again, Gladwell denounces SM for making “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.”
It is easier than ever to type in a keyword about human trafficking, Gaza, environmental degradation and corporate corruption and instantly find reams of articles, twitter accounts and discussion boards providing the networks, connections and information to get started, but the audience needs to be searching in the first place. Education reform, parental guidance, and commitment to engagement in conversation are absolutely essential. Shirky’s assertion that “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation” is astute; we must maintain the conversations and encouragement with each other (IRL) that may make or break our futures.
Bringing you my first ever guest post! By Jamie Coughlan, of indie music zine overblown.co.uk.
There’s a public and very virulent epidemic in the western world. No, it’s not AIDS. It’s not alcoholism. It’s not ADHD.
It is encapsulated by the most abhorrent, pathetic and pitiful phrase you will ever hear in your life: “Things never change, so why bother?” If you ever hear someone confidently spout these despicable words with an ill-informed, patronising arrogance you should…what should you do? Should you turn your back on them and walk away? Should you acquiesce to their deluded and pathetic statement? Should you spit in their eye? No. You should stand tall, equally confident in the provable hope that exists in your rational and logical knowledge. As the speaker and his/her cronies cackle at the pathetic naïvete you display in your assertion that everything is changing all the time, you should take a breath and prepare. Don’t be cowed by traditionally accepted platitudes, and the clichéd non-thought of the morass of ignorance in your immediate presence. Straighten your back (which is admittedly against the wall) and calmly begin.
101 years ago, women were disenfranchised. Second class citizens by virtue of being born with a uterus. A 40 year old immensely brave woman named Emily Davison stepped in front of King George V’s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby. and suffered injuries that four days later resulted in her death.
Did she do this because things never change? No, she did this because she believed in her cause and was hopeful that her statement would have a positive impact. Now, due to her sacrifice and the brave and hopeful work of the Suffragette movement, women in the western world enjoy rights that their foremothers could only dream of. They vote, they work, they own property, they run businesses and lead governments. There is work yet to be done, but I am brave and hopeful.
59 years ago, black people were second class citizens in the western world. They were regularly segregated into ‘black’ theatres and bars. Interracial marriage was seen as unnatural and disgusting, they were forced to drink from ‘blacks only’ water fountains, and frequently the subject of gross judicial injustice. Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, had worked all day and decided to get the bus home. She sat in the ‘black’ section of the bus towards the back, but in the first row directly behind the ‘white’ section. As the bus filled with white people, she was instructed to move. After her refusal she was arrested for violation of the Jim Crow laws.
Did she do this because things never change? No, she did this because she believed in her cause and was hopeful that her statement would have a positive impact. Now, due to her bravery and hope and the work of civil rights groups such as the NAACP, black people and other so-called “minorities” enjoy rights their foremothers and fathers could only dream of. Interracial marriage is no longer seen as disgusting, mixed race children are no longer dismissed as “mongrels”, and there’s even a black man in the White House, a thing that my father thought he would never see in his lifetime. There is work yet to be done, but I am brave and hopeful.
37 years ago, gay people were second class citizens around the world. In many places, the act of homosexual sex, degradingly referred to as sodomy in legislation, was illegal. They were seen as degenerates, perverts and a threat to society. In California, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay person to hold political office in that state. Did he run as an openly gay person because nothing ever changes? No, he did so because he believed in his cause and was hopeful that he could be elected without compromising who he was. In 1978, he and Mayor Mascone of San Francisco were assassinated by Dan White. While this was not directly due to Milk’s homosexuality, it was linked to White being refused reappointment to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors due to his conservative agenda. A more liberal appointment was deemed more desirable in that time of social change. Now, due to Milk’s bravery and hope, and the work of LGBT civil rights groups, homosexual sex is no longer illegal, gay people can legally marry and they can adopt children in many countries. There is work yet to be done, but I am brave and hopeful.
After you have finished sharing your hope based on fact, reason and logic, you can then focus on this adherent to archaic non-intellectual and ignorant thought before you, and say to them: how dare you teach such nonsense to your children. How dare you spread it among your peers and colleagues. How dare you attempt to diminish my faith in and hope for humanity with your ill-informed and cowardly apathy. The world is in constant flux, and over time there is progressive and positive change. I will never allow your apathy to infest my faith in and hope for humanity. We are a work in progress, and progress is hard, and progress is slow.
Things will never change if you’re apathetic, pitiful, and pathetic world view takes hold. There is work yet to be done, but I am brave and hopeful.
Jamie is a muso, teacher and writer from Ireland. He considers himself incredibly pretentious, though no one else does, resulting in either a full confirmation or complete cancelling out of the fact, I’m not sure. He’s bad with money, and loves beer gardens (hence being bad with money. Topiary addictions are niche and expensive.)
You can find more of Jamie’s work at his site Overblown at the link above. Follow him on Twitter @OverblownZine.
What do you think about Jamie’s view of apathy? Post a comment below – if anybody would like to respond, it would be interesting to host another piece on the state of apathy…continue the train of thought!
Joehas been described as a ‘return to form’ for Nicolas Cage. Though most critics are praising his acting chops, it can also be understood as an acknowledgement of his ability to ‘do crazy’ terrifyingly well. Cage’s latest foray into crazy is certainly one of substance, and, luckily, every one of the leading performances here follows suit. With equally skilled direction, much of this unique and rattling picture hits the mark dead on; perhaps, then, it’s the basis of the novel that predated it that stunts this otherwise complex story of masculinity in crisis.
The film can confidently claim its success as a mainstream picture, carefully toeing a line between box-office thriller and arthouse meditation, allowing for widely appreciable receipt which I don’t doubt it will get. It is more complex than its trailer betrays; though its the spine that allows for wider exploration, at its centre it is not about Joe being a father figure to an abused boy (Gary, played by an exceptional Tye Sheridan,) and/or very occasionally shot at, which is what lured most people in. The essence of the film is an examination of whether vices and violence preclude one from being a ‘good person’. Joe’s tendency to violence is the focus of this conflict between good-or-not, and his vices facilitate both his restraint and his violence. The foregrounding of prostitution, alcoholism and smoking, however, present ambiguous messages to the audience, and a series of morality-chicken-and-morality-egg considerations.
The big question at its heart is one of good, evil and human nature; how and why, and indeed, is Joe a good man? Will Gary be?
I’m assuming it was purposeful that the eponymous character was constantly in conflict with the audience; Joe’s behaviour bounces between repulsive, parental and adolescent. Without any comic relief it was difficult to feel identification with someone so inconsistent; though, of course, it rang true. The parallel between Joe and Gary was made explicit initially, but generally left alone throughout to allow for an assumed connection between them, and a comment on neglect, abuse and the cause and effect of both in adulthood. The ties to class here were interesting; the film is centered entirely on working and under-class characters, and very much focused on the ravages of alcoholism and poverty within their lives. The characters who did not drink (at least on-screen) were happy and friendly in the main, with a great sense of camaraderie, compassion and connection as a community. These were incredibly interesting characters, who could certainly have given the film even more depth. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at a wider comment on the economic situation or history of anyone; this was not a radically-minded film, but one which, as usual, seemed to leave most of the characters’ traits, behaviours and habitats to be assumed as an innate part of their ‘bad’ character.
Ultimately, the film is about what it means to ‘be a man’, and it’s as layered, frustrating and contradictory as that sounds. Thematically, Joe is intriguing; an archetypal story of good and evil, implicitly reflecting on class and identity and surreptitiously providing insight into the human self and our beliefs about those selves. Though, once again, an essentialist ideology about ‘being a man’ pervades this work; Joe does not challenge prevailing stereotypes about masculinity, but rather resigns itself to them. It provides more insight into the chronic clichés of classical characterization than it does into humanity or our potential to challenge the failures of those clichés.
For all the complexity and nuance, stereotypes of masculinity are glaringly present. Though the connection between them is implied, it is unclear whether we are supposed to understand Joe as having an abusive upbringing similar to Gary’s. Without allusion to it, Joe’s obsession with violence and protection of the innocent (which, naturally, includes women, as long as they will have sex with him) appears to come from his oh-so-manliness; one so tied to his base desires as a human that in order not to kill someone a brothel pit-stop, facilitated by his dog killing their guard dog so he can get in for a quick blow-job, is necessary, before he can finally soothe his roaring male-ness under the weight of a tank of whiskey and a few beers.
He then proceeds to let a first-time-drunk Gary drive him around. Granted, there is a mild comedy and a deep tenderness to the boys’ road trip to find Joe’s dog (who, incidentally, is female…) and in the context of their connection as damaged children, it works. The derailment of Joe as a father figure is successfully implied, and in addition he loses his endearing nature and it almost signals his end; not only in the narrative but also as a champion-able protagonist.
This also provides insight into whether or not the film really provides a critical edge when it comes to power relations that aren’t between men. The exploration of masculine violence is constant, but reads as more of a fascination than a critical examination of how violence is used. Desperate attempts at retaining unequal power imbalance, an unstable ego, and a facilitation of greed at others’ expense are all present in the film; all complex portrayals of the roots of violence. These subtle hints at the nature of violent relationships are commendable, and remain foregrounded throughout, but the focus of the narrative, and thus its power, remains with the enacters of violence, and not those abused. There is no unease in Joe’s visits to the brothel and the general use of prostitutes, and his relationship with Connie, while illuminating both his gentleness and his rejection of intimacy, results in a pretty flat plot strand. There were numerous females present throughout, though none were developed and all were passive (except the wonderful woman whose birthday it was – we never found out if anyone made her a cake.) All of these gender dynamics could have allowed for a greater determination of what exactly is meant and felt by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and the power relations between the two. The opportunities having been lost, they left only underwritten female characters in their wake and yet another cinematic foregrounding of woman-as-commodity.
The character of Gary was a blank slate, and rightly so; lost but full and played perfectly by Sheridan, his rescue of his sister was a triumphant and satisfying end to his arc, but not hers. It was yet another conflict in message, mired in imbalances that were perhaps lost in favour of the exciting climax shootout. For a film that was so tender, well-played and -directed, the shortcomings of Joe in its themes about masculinity, class and violence were frustrating. Joe’s final showdown with his nemesis could perhaps be read as a comment on the futility of violence, and that if ‘good’ men succumb to it, they will be destroyed, but it also provided a conveniently quick and neat ending. As a comment on masculinity, Joe is not a radically transformative one, and while insightful in many ways regarding the expectations and pressures on young boys to be stereotypically (destructively) masculine, it speaks more about vice and its relationship with violence.
As a meditation on abuse and an exploration of what it means to be a good person, especially what it means to misunderstand and abuse oneself whilst attempting to heal, it is full of contradictory but fascinating messages. And ultimately, these contradictions may ring true as a reflection of the complexity involved in human desire, and the lottery of life. The last line of the film is “Joe was a good man…”. People are not as simple as good and evil, and I hope that audience will come away understanding that; I have faith that this was Joe’s aim.